Sean Connery, the whiskey-voiced son of Scotland who brought James Bond to the screen for the first time and went on to lead a long and celebrated acting career, died on Saturday (October 31). He was 90.
The BBC reported that the actor passed peacefully in his sleep after being “unwell for some time,” according to his son, Jason Connery. “We are all working at understanding this huge event as it only happened so recently,” he said. “A sad day for all who knew and loved my dad and a sad loss for all people around the world who enjoyed the wonderful gift he had as an actor.”
Born Thomas Sean Connery on August 25, 1930, his challenging childhood in the slums of Edinburgh influenced much of his life, and he would later donate the $1 million he made from Diamonds Are Forever to the Scottish International Education Trust, which helps Scots from similarly impoverished backgrounds receive educations. His first film role was in the B-movie Action of the Tiger in 1957, followed by Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure and Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People in 1959.
Connery embodied the character of James Bond — tall and suave, with a hidden temper. In 1962, he brought the novelist Ian Fleming’s iconic secret agent to life with Dr. No, becoming a best-selling star throughout Great Britain and the United States with From Russia With Love the following year, Goldfinger in 1964, and 1965’s Thunderball. He left the role after 1967’s You Only Live Twice, later to reprise it in 1971 with Diamonds Are Forever and, once more, in 1983’s Never Say Never Again.
“It took a whole generation along, and it’s turned out almost three decades,” Connery told MTV News in 1992 of the role that he portrayed across seven features. “And it had a certain kind of momentum because the timing was very important. It came out at a time when people were sort of fed up with the kind of kitchen sink, and that sort of drama, and they were very taken with the espionage and the exotic locations, and nice, tailored suits, and beautiful women, and swishing around, and being, you know, highly active — all the elements that were, I think, probably more escapism than anything.”
Daniel Craig, the actor who picked up the role of the resourceful man of espionage in 2006, remembered Connery as “one of the greats” in a statement to Entertainment Weekly. “It is with such sadness that I heard of the passing of one of the true greats of cinema,” he said. “Sir Sean Connery will be remembered as Bond and so much more. He defined an era and a style. The wit and charm he portrayed on screen could be measured in mega watts; he helped create the modern blockbuster. He will continue to influence actors and film-makers alike for years to come. My thoughts are with his family and loved ones. Wherever he is, I hope there is a golf course.”
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Connery led a successful and diverse acting career beyond Bond, too, expanding to further commercial roles in the late 1980s. He earned a best-actor award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for his performance as a crime-solving monk in 1986’s The Name of a Rose, followed by an Academy Award for best-supporting actor in 1987’s The Untouchables. He was knighted on July 5, 2000, by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to the arts. His final part was Allan Quatermain in 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon said she was “heartbroken” to learn of his passing. In a tribute shared on Twitter, she wrote, “Our nation today mourns one of her best loved sons.”
WHEN KAMPALA went into covid-19 lockdown, singletons in the Ugandan capital were looking for “lockdown partners”, says Allan Creed, who works in digital marketing. He and his friends couldn’t get to their local shops to buy contraceptives. Mr Creed has been relying on free condoms doled out by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) via a local motorbike ride-hailing app called SafeBoda. But three of his friends now have unplanned pregnancies in the midst of their university degrees. “We were not moving, we were not working, nothing was happening, so you had a lot of time on your hands,” the 26-year-old explains.
Meanwhile in wealthy Singapore, where contraception is easy to come by, young people who were already reluctant to start a family before the pandemic are even more so during a global recession. The government is trying to coax people into reproducing with a one-off grant of S$3,000 ($2,200) for having a child in the next two years on top of pre-existing payments and savings schemes. For Keith, even that doesn’t make up for the cost of becoming a father. “I know that me and my wife will have a very good time in the next 30, 40 years without kids,” the 36-year-old says. “Do we want to risk that?”
It is too early, by a few months at least, to be sure what the effect of covid-19 will be on fertility rates. But different patterns seem to be emerging in rich and poor countries. Few women want to have a child in a time of uncertainty. In the rich world many are holding off starting a family or adding to it. But in the poorest places, where women often have less choice in the matter, a baby boom may be in the offing. Governments are already trying to adapt. It is not just Singapore trying to boost birth rates. Japan’s new prime minister, Suga Yoshihide, last week called for health insurance to cover in vitro fertility treatment. Japanese government figures showed an 11% fall in new pregnancies in the three months from May relative to last year.
In poor countries mass displacement is adding to sexual activity. In refugee camps, where people rely on informal work that dried up during lockdowns, transactional sex is expected to rise. When India announced an abrupt lockdown in March millions of urban workers lost their jobs and fled to their home villages across the country, and in Nepal, Bangladesh and beyond. They were reunited with lovers they usually see just a few times a year over public holidays. That could be enough to throw off population forecasts, says Vinit Sharma of the UNFPA. “We had not expected so many couples to be together for such a long period of time,” he adds.
More sex doesn’t necessarily mean more babies. But covid-19 has disrupted supply chains for contraception. Poor people rarely buy several months’ worth of contraceptives at once. Even a short break can lead to unwanted pregnancies. Data from health facilities in India show that between December and March the distribution of contraceptive pills and condoms dropped by 15% and 23%, respectively. Insertions of intrauterine devices for long-term birth control also tumbled.
The Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice think-tank, points out that the strain placed on health-care systems in developing countries by covid-19 is likely to disrupt sexual-health services. It estimates that a fall of 10% in the use of such services in 132 low- and middle-income countries will mean that 50m more women will not get the contraceptives they need this year, leading to 15m unintended pregnancies. It estimates that 28,000 mothers and 170,000 newborns will die, and there will be an extra 3.3m unsafe abortions.
In the rich world, by contrast, women tend to have greater control over family planning. This means that anxiety caused by the pandemic looks likely to cause a sharp decline in birth rates. A survey by the Guttmacher Institute of American women aged 18 to 34 in families earning less than $75,000 found that a third want to get pregnant later or have fewer children because of covid-19 (see chart 1). A paper published by the IZA Institute of Labour Economics predicts a 15% drop in America’s monthly births between November and February, 50% larger than the decline following the 2007-09 financial crisis.
Covid-19 threatens to speed up a decades-old trend towards smaller families in rich countries. In Singapore the fertility rate (ie, the number of children that a woman can expect to have during her lifetime) was 1.14 (far below the replacement rate of 2.1), even before the pandemic. When New York City went into lockdown, many people stopped fertility treatment. Some hospitals did not allow partners into delivery rooms. The prospect of going through birth alone put some women off starting a family, according to Brian Levine, founder and director in New York of CCRM Fertility, a network of fertility clinics in America and Canada. “You’re not going to see a bunch of people being born in December and January because [people] were home and bored and having sex,” he says. “They were home and bored and scared.”
Women are worried about catching covid-19 while pregnant, since medics say it is possible to pass the virus on to an unborn child. Others have found themselves taking on a disproportionate share of housework during the lockdown and can’t face looking after a newborn, too. “It’s not people saying they don’t want kids—it’s them saying they can not and should not,” says Karen Benjamin Guzzo at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
At Planned Parenthood, the country’s largest provider of abortions and reproductive services, the number of medical abortions has gone up. Gillian Dean, who works in obstetrics and gynaecology for the group in New York, says patients are terminating pregnancies they would have continued in other circumstances. “I’ve had patients who are frontline workers, who are the only people in their homes who are employed, and they feel like they need to do everything they can to not step away from the workforce right now,” Dr Dean says.
Evidence from an outbreak in 2015-16 of Zika, a disease that causes birth defects, suggests covid-19 won’t have a uniform impact across the developing world either. In Brazil, a middle-income country where half of all pregnancies are unintended in normal times, the number of births dropped after Zika hit. This is a sign that many women managed to obtain contraception (or illegal abortions). Births fell furthest in the north-east, where the Zika epidemic struck first and hardest, according to research led by Letícia Marteleto at the University of Texas at Austin. This year, with covid-19, it is black women and other minorities in Brazil who find it hardest to access health care, even after taking account of their poverty.
In May Malu Sícoli, a lawyer in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, decided to stop trying for a baby until the pandemic subsided. Days later she found out she was already pregnant. Memories of Zika added to her anxiety about having the child. “The first time I went for a prenatal screening I was sick with nerves,” she says. “I was nervous about being on the street, let alone in a medical clinic, a laboratory, a hospital.”
The big question is how long-lasting the impact on birth rates will be. History suggests the decline in birth rates could be rapidly reversed. Those who conceived unplanned babies during the pandemic might have fewer children later in life. Women in rich countries who put off pregnancy might start trying again once the jitters around covid-19 calm down. Fertility fell after the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Hong Kong and Hurricane Katrina in America (see chart 2), but recovered soon after. The 1918 Spanish flu epidemic also led to a baby bust the next year, but birth rates increased again in 1920. The effect held globally, suggesting it was not just the end of war driving the resurgence. Couples were having the babies they put off.
In New York there are already signs that couples are trying for sprogs once again. Edward Nejat, a fertility doctor at Generation Next Fertility in Manhattan, saw a drastic drop-off in patients in March that he puts down to uncertainty. His practice did not close but 95% of his patients chose not to pursue treatment during the first wave. He is now seeing more patients than before the pandemic. “For most people this was a pause,” he says.
But that might not always be possible. In southern Europe the effects of the last economic crisis are still being felt among a generation that reached adulthood then, who have struggled to find stable jobs or buy homes. For those now in their late 30s, biological clocks are ticking, says Francesca Luppi of Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan. Recent research by Ms Luppi found 29% of 18- to 34-year-olds in Spain and 37% in Italy who were planning to have a child in 2020 in January had abandoned those plans by March.
Government policy has a role to play here. Besides trying to tackle the pandemic itself, states can seek to ease the economic hardship that covid-19 has caused. They can also subsidise access to contraception, giving women more control of family planning. And they can craft policies for education and child care that make it easier to start a family.
Disasters, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, are all disastrous in different ways. Comparing covid-19 to past wars, pandemics or natural catastrophes is only so useful. Never before has the world faced such widespread lockdowns for such a long period of time. While people may be more nervous about having children during a crisis, being thrust indoors and banned from mixing with other households might nonetheless make them want them more, suggests Rachel Snow, head of the population and development branch at the UNFPA. “Maybe we’re going to see a new appreciation of family life.” ■
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This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Baby bust, baby boom”
SOMETIME AROUND the middle of the 19th century, Maria Sutton Clemments worked as a slave on an Arkansas cotton plantation. Years later she remembered one typically vicious overseer. If her fellow slaves “didn’t chop that cotton just right,” she recounted, “he would have them tied up to a stake or big sapling and beat him until the blood ran out of the gashes.”
Fast forward around 175 years from that Arkansas scene, and Ruslan Utayev is recalling his own experience of being forced to pick cotton, in Uzbekistan, less than a decade ago. Between September and November, he says, the then president, Islam Karimov, closed Mr Utayev’s school and made its children and teachers work the fields. His shift started at 6am and he was expected to pick 100kg of cotton a day, a barely conceivable amount of what is, in essence, fluff. Those who failed to reach their quotas were spared the whip, but could expect public humiliation from their supervisors.
Like countless others, both Susan Merritt and Mr Utayev were the victims of the world’s hunger for cotton. American plantations supplied the newly mechanised cotton mills of Europe, particularly Britain. And it was a desire to free itself from a reliance on Western cotton that led pre-Soviet Russia to turn vast swathes of its Central Asian conquests over to the crop. Both Western capitalism and, later, Soviet communism, had the same effect: to compel the unwilling to harvest a labour-intensive crop as cheaply as possible. The legacy has endured. Today the world’s attention has turned to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, a gulag-splattered region in western China. There, companies bus in minorities to cotton fields under the pretence of creating “a sense of unity and nationality”, says Kai Hughes, executive director of the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), an industry group (though he was speaking in a personal capacity).
Farmers produced an estimated 26m tonnes of cotton in 2019-20, worth $41bn, according to the ICAC. It is the most widely farmed product that you can’t eat, reckons the World Wildlife Fund. America’s Department of Labour lists 17 countries believed still to use forced or child labour in their cotton industries. Miscreants span the globe, from Argentina to Egypt to China. Of the world’s ten biggest cotton producers, only three—America, Australia and Mexico—are considered free of it (and some argue that, given its use of prisoners to pick the crop, America is lucky to be off the blacklist).
Nowadays few pickers face such blatant coercion as those in Arkansas or Uzbekistan did, or the Uyghurs do. Labourers are more likely to be entrapped by debt, or exploited by agents. India’s experience is common. Pickers there tend to be migrants who move with the seasons. Often jobs in far-off states are arranged through middlemen, who take an advance, ostensibly to cover accommodation and such like. The effect is to bond the harvester to the agent until the money is repaid. At the same time, the majority of cotton farms are smallholdings. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a think-tank, of the 100m farmers who cultivate the crop around the world, around 90% do so on less than two hectares of land. That discourages mechanisation, forcing them to rely on cheap human labour.
The use of children is a separate, though related, issue. It comes in two guises. The first is migrant families taking their offspring to toil in the fields with them. The second is farmers using them on their own holdings. Children are employed not only because they are cheap. Farmers also prize their small, nimble hands, particularly during seeding season, says Purva Gupta of the Global March Against Child Labour, a human-rights group. When that is combined with rural poverty and inadequate schools, many parents think their kids’ time is best served working. Lax regulation doesn’t help. Child labour in India, for example, is outlawed only for hazardous occupations, among them mining. Cotton farming doesn’t feature, even though the children can often be exposed to dangerous agricultural chemicals.
Brand spanking due? Many people argue that the solution to forced labour lies with global clothing brands, the ultimate beneficiaries of such practices. Why are they not being more rigorous when they source their textiles? Many brands say they would like to be, for both legal and reputational reasons. The trouble is cotton’s convoluted journey from farm to shop. Even a “simple” supply chain, says Mark Sumner of the University of Leeds, looks something like this: a farmer and his small-holder neighbours sell raw cotton to a ginner (who separates the fibres from the seeds), often through an agent. The ginner then supplies huge global traders, which amalgamate cotton from around the world, sorted by quality. They in turn sell to yarn producers. Next come the textile manufacturers which knit or weave the fabric and sell to dyers and finishers. Finally the cloth is ready to be sold to a garment manufacturer which produces the finished item. These tend to be the only firms in the supply chain with which the brands have a contract.
Even if those further down that chain had the will to track which bales came from which field (which it is not in their interest to do) it would be logistically unworkable. And expecting brands to audit the practices of firms with which they don’t have a contract is a big ask. Even the biggest clothing companies would represent only a small fraction of the trade of downstream firms, giving them little leverage when it comes to enforcing standards.
The problem, then, can feel intractable. Yet there are things that can be done. Some schemes reward firms that invest in ethical sources of cotton. The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is one example. It certifies brands using a concept called “mass balance”. When a clothing firm places an order for finished garments, it asks for a certain weight of certified cotton to be associated with the order. BCI then ensures that a farmer somewhere in the world produces the same weight of cotton to its standards, which not only include criteria on labour but also on environmental impact. This credit is passed through the supply chain. Thus, although the clothing firm cannot guarantee that the actual material it uses has been produced without forced labour, it can say that it has been instrumental in producing the equivalent amount of ethical cotton.
Motivated governments also help hugely. Around the turn of this century, for example, Brazil decided to make a concerted effort to stamp out child labour. Laws were tightened, penalties increased and government inspectors sent out to farms. Such measures have “effectively priced child labour out of the market there”, reckons Genevieve LeBaron of the University of Sheffield.
Authorities in importing countries must play their part, too. Xinjiang produces more than 80% of China’s raw cotton, says Mr Hughes, and the country as a whole is the world’s second-largest producer after India. Last month the American government placed “Withhold Release Orders” on firms accused of using forced Uyghur labour, in effect making their cotton illegal to import. Since then China’s share of America’s cotton-textile market has dropped from 31% to 26%, says Mr Hughes. (Although China still has a huge domestic market.)
Reaping the harvest Many point to Uzbekistan as a beacon of hope. Seventy per cent of the country’s arable land is used for cotton (often in rotation with wheat), according to the International Labour Organisation, a UN agency. Some 1.75m people—one in eight of the working-age population—work picking the crop. Many were once forced to do so. But following the death of President Karimov in 2016, the country decided to clean up its act. Under the pressure of sanctions, forced and child labour were criminalised. Smallholders were also nudged into co-operatives and foreign experts encouraged into the country.
One such was Dan Patterson, a Mississippian who in 2018 set up the Silverleafe farm cluster in Jizzakh, in the east of the country. Its co-operative now operates on 27,000 hectares. That has allowed Mr Patterson to mechanise. Mr Utayev, the schoolchild forced into the fields a decade ago, no longer toils with his hands. Instead of 100kg of hand-picked cotton, he operates a harvester that brings in more than 120,000kg of raw seed a day. Higher wages mean he can now take care of his family, he says. The crop from each plot on Silverleafe is radio-tagged and sent to the cluster’s own ginner. The co-operative is also building a textile mill. Both digitisation and vertical integration make it much easier to track each bale of cotton “from dirt to shirt” says Mr Patterson.
The ILO says Uzbekistan is on the way to eradicating forced and child labour. It reckons the number of people participating involuntarily in the harvest fell by 40% in 2019 compared with the previous year, to around 102,000. Others, like the Cotton Campaign, an umbrella group that includes brands, producers and NGOs, are more cautious. Allison Gill, its senior coordinator, thinks the number may sneak up again this year. As covid-19 hits the economy and depresses the price of cotton, she says, firefighters and even bankers are being mobilised on some plantations. For the moment, none of the group’s members favour lifting a boycott of Uzbek cotton. But if Uzbekistan can prove that eliminating forced labour is not only ethical, but also financially rewarding, other countries might eventually cotton on, too.
FOR SOME years wooden fishing boats, from another time as much as from another place, have been washing up on the western shores of Japan’s main island. Now numbering in the hundreds, these ghost boats are usually empty. Occasionally they contain the starved remains of North Korean fishermen. Life in North Korea is brutal and its fishing is primitive. But its inshore waters are known to have much marine life. Why would such unseaworthy craft head so far out to sea that they either get lost or are blown off course by the Sea of Japan’s notorious storms?
The mystery unravelled only recently, with the confirmation of another type of ghost ship. South Korea’s coastguard had for some time been aware of large Chinese fishing vessels steaming, fast and in single file, through South Korean waters. Their superstructures were festooned with racks of powerful electric bulbs—the identifying feature of squid boats, which use light to lure their prey from the depths at night. The Chinese skippers were less keen to attract the attention of the South Korean authorities. They had, in contravention of South Korean regulations, turned off their “automatic identification system”, or AIS. These transponders, which help prevent collisions, broadcast a vessel’s identity and position. When the Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit organisation with which The Economist collaborated on this story, put out to sea on a South Korean vessel in 2019 in hopes of collecting details on the Chinese fleet, one of nearly two-dozen Chinese vessels blared its horn, flashed its lights and veered towards the South Korean boat as if to ram it. The Koreans averted a potentially fatal collision by taking avoiding action when the Chinese vessel was metres away.
The South Korean authorities had asked Global Fishing Watch (GFW) to throw light on what the Chinese fleet was up to. GFW is another non-profit organisation set up four years ago by Google and others to monitor fishing around the world. It uses machine learning to overlay signals from vessels’ transponders (when switched on) with three types of satellite imagery: high-resolution optical images, images from cloud-penetrating radar, and infrared imagery that spots vessels operating at night. GFW’s conclusion was published in Science Advances in July: a “dark fleet” of nearly 1,000 industrial-sized Chinese fishing boats is hauling squillions of squid from the waters within North Korea’s 200-nautical-mile (370.4km) exclusive economic zone each year. Squid is popular across East Asia, and demand is growing elsewhere, too—America imports 80,000 tonnes a year, most of it from China. Thanks to overfishing, South Korea and Japan have reported a fall in their catch of the Pacific flying squid of over four-fifths since 1983. That makes remaining stocks more valuable.
Yet the Chinese fleet’s activities in North Korean waters are certainly illegal. Possibly the Chinese Communist Party has struck a deal with the dictator, Kim Jong Un, for access to North Korean waters, in which case it is in breach of a UN Security Council resolution in 2017 imposing sanctions on the rogue regime for its nuclear weapons programme. More likely, its vessels are in North Korean waters without permission, in which case they are poaching on an industrial scale. Either way, China’s dark fleet is causing harm. Its depletion of coastal waters in the past few years coincides with a sharp rise in ghost boats washing up in Japan, as well as thousands of rickety North Korean boats entering Russian waters illegally. Desperate North Korean fisherfolk are having to go farther and farther to make their catch, leaving hungry villages full of widows behind.
China’s dark fleet is the world’s biggest, but it is not the only one. GFW and Trygg Mat Tracking, a Norwegian NGO that helps African states with fisheries intelligence, have uncovered nearly 200 Iranian fishing boats using drift nets to catch tuna off Somalia and Yemen. Epic, round-the-world chases by Sea Shepherd, a vigilante conservation group, to interdict rogue vessels fishing for the valuable Patagonian toothfish in the Southern Ocean have captured the imagination of ecowarriors.
Ships in the night
The crimes of such vessels are one part of what is known as illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. As national, regional and multilateral bodies struggle with the damage overfishing causes to marine ecosystems (see chart), IUU fishing highlights the woeful state of governance on the waters that cover over two-thirds of the planet. Dodgy fishing drives a harpoon through efforts to make seafood supplies sustainable. One international study concludes that of 1,300 commercial species of fish and marine invertebrates, 82% are being removed faster than they can repopulate. Illicit boats not only net without restraint; they also deprive governments of billions of dollars from selling access to fisheries. And they threaten the livelihoods of tens of millions of small legal fishermen in Indonesia, west Africa, the Pacific Islands and other coastal states. Some go hungry because their waters have been feloniously fished.
Shortly after the GFW report came another discovery, this time by the Ecuadorean navy: a Chinese fleet fishing for squid right up against Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone around the (famously biodiverse) Galapagos islands. Many of the 260-odd boats are likely to have taken part in the North Korean fishing foray. Some of these vessels may have broken the law by switching off their transponders and sneaking into Ecuadorean waters. HawkEye 360, an American firm, used faint radio signals to identify vessels near the Chinese fleet that had gone “dark” within Ecuador’s exclusive zone. But establishing them to be Chinese fishing boats proved impossible. For the most part, the fleet did not appear to be breaking any laws. It was in international waters. And though international agreements exist for key fish stocks, notably commercial species of tuna, fishing for squid is not regulated. Chinese boats were taking rapacious advantage of that.
Even the legal presence of the Chinese fleet in this part of the eastern Pacific has consequences, says Enric Sala, National Geographic’s explorer-in-residence. At the turn of the year the fleet typically moves to the edge of the Argentine shelf, hoovering up squid before the start of the season that Argentina recognises in January—after the cephalopods have bred (a confrontation between the Argentine coastguard and a Chinese squid boat is pictured top). All this hurts the livelihoods of thousands of South American fishermen.
Duncan Copeland of Trygg Mat Tracking says it has also spotted Chinese fleets rapidly expanding squid fishing in two vast but little-documented patches of the Indian Ocean. Sucking up squid on this scale is troubling. Fleets are increasingly going after squid because they have fished out so many of their predators—a case of “fishing down the foodweb”. Squid are an important food source for many other species, including tuna, that local fleets want to catch. Squid also lead what Mr Sala calls a “superquick life”, growing, reproducing and dying in just a year. So when even squid populations are crashing, that is worrying.
The world is gradually waking up to the problem of dark fleets operating under cover of night or beyond the arm of the law. However, Mark Zimring of The Nature Conservancy, an environmental NGO, says that most illegal fishing takes place on licensed fleets. They are responsible for more than 90% of infractions in the southern Pacific. Instances might include skippers catching more fish than they have a permit for, or misreporting the species they have caught. In the Pacific and elsewhere, many vessels licensed to catch tuna are engaged in the finning of sharks. Illegal drift nets, as well as nets with too fine a mesh, kill vast quantities of by-catch—other fish species that are thrown back into the water—as well as protected animals such as the critically endangered vaquita porpoise found in the Gulf of California.
With so many vessels up to no good, the agencies meant to enforce the rules are outmatched. Many are poorly staffed and trained, especially in the poor countries of west and east Africa, South-East Asia and the Pacific. The coronavirus has made matters worse. In July the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which oversees the world’s biggest tuna fishery, absolved fishing boats purse-seining for tuna from carrying a fisheries observer.
Then there is the treatment of crews. Fishing has always been a dangerous profession. It is sometimes lucrative, but more often not. In Asia forced labour is rampant, as are other abuses of workers. Thailand has a huge fishery. But few Thais want to join it, leaving the fleet short of about 50,000 seamen a year. Tens of thousands of migrants from Cambodia and Myanmar are whispered into Thailand each year to make up the numbers (one is pictured on a boat below).
Unscrupulous captains buy and sell these men and boys like chattel. Your correspondent joined a vessel that fished about 100 miles off the Thai coast. Three dozen Cambodian men and boys worked barefoot, in 15-foot swells, on a deck made slippery by fish guts and ice, an obstacle course of jagged tackle and spinning winches. One boy proudly showed off two missing fingers, caught between a net and a drum. Some crew members’ hands had open wounds, the deepest of which they stitched up themselves. The captain had plenty of amphetamine to distribute, but no antibiotics. Shifts ran to 20 hours. Food was a once-daily bowl of rice, flecked with boiled squid. Drinking water was rationed. The whole ship crawled with cockroaches. Rats were as carefree as city squirrels.
Reports from Asian distant-water fleets are also horrific. In July Indonesian police impounded two Chinese vessels and arrested executives of a recruitment agency over the mistreatment of Indonesian crew members, one of whom was found dead in a deep freeze. The environmental and labour practices of Taiwan’s fleet were so egregious that in 2015 the European Union threatened to stop importing Taiwanese seafood. One Filipino former crew member of the Da Wang, a Taiwanese vessel registered in Vanuatu, says the skipper frequently punched him in the back of the head to make him work harder and whirled a large hook around to intimidate. The Filipino says he witnessed the first officer beat an Indonesian crew member, who later died. He says that after the vessel returned to Taiwan its owners and the recruitment agency threatened him. He is in hiding and giving evidence to an investigation.
The government has since tightened regulations governing the welfare of 35,000-odd foreign crewmen. Yet in October America’s Department of Labour classified fish caught by Taiwan’s long-distance fleet—with 1,100 vessels second only to China’s—as the products of forced labour. It said crews on Taiwanese vessels “face confiscation of documents, long days with little rest, physical and verbal abuse, and lack of payment”. Though the American government has yet to ban seafood from Taiwan, at a minimum American companies sourcing fish from Taiwan now face closer scrutiny at customs.
The Pacific’s tuna fishery has recorded one or two suspicious deaths of on-board fisheries observers every year since 2015—perhaps after seeing what they should not have. In March a Kiribati fisheries observer was found dead on a Taiwan-flagged tuna boat with a blow to the back of his head. His case is being treated as murder. The presence of one type of crime suggests the likelihood of others, says Emma Witbooi, one author of a report on organised crime in fisheries put out by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, a Norwegian-led initiative. Increasingly, fishing is used as a cover for running guns and drugs, trafficking labour and laundering money.
Belatedly, governments, multilateral institutions, conservation groups and even fishing interests are recognising the scale of illicit fishing and resolving to tackle it. Sally Yozell of the Stimson Centre, a think-tank in Washington, DC, estimates that illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing generates profits of $36bn a year and could account for between 20% and 50% of the global fish catch. Nearly everyone who has eaten fish has eaten the dodgy sort.
As work uncovering dark fleets is showing, technology can help curb maritime malefactors. At the Forum Fisheries Agency in Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, a giant screen covers one wall, showing a satellite view of the whole Pacific. The intergovernmental agency, backed by Australia, New Zealand and other donors, is tasked with helping 17 Pacific island states manage migratory tuna stocks within their vast exclusive economic zones. The screen shows the position of all tuna vessels licensed to fish in the members’ waters, broadcast via satellite. Most vessels are depicted as tiny green tadpoles, with tails showing their recent track. But some of them—one stationary in a Chinese port, another steaming towards Palau—are marked in red. Matthew Hooper, the agency’s deputy director, says that these vessels have either been caught red-handed or are suspected of having fished illegally. They are closely watched.
Experts say the scope for better monitoring is growing. For instance, when two vessels can be seen meeting far out at sea, it raises a red flag: they could be trans-shipping an illegal catch. For that reason, Mr Hooper says, Pacific countries are pushing for greater regulation of at-sea trans-shipment, even outside their waters, for tuna longline vessels they license to fish.
Mr Zimring says the next move is to bring electronic monitoring onto vessels themselves. Australian, American and Chilean boats are adopting on-board cameras that start recording when, for instance, a winch drum turns or a seine net is shot. In future the data might be processed with the help of machine learning to help spot abnormal behaviour. The Nature Conservancy says it is working with casino-security experts to improve the algorithms. Mr Zimring notes that these monitoring systems do not sleep or get sick, and cannot be bribed or knocked on the head.
Two other tasks are essential. One is to chase crime ashore. In the rare instances where fisheries infractions are punished, it is almost always through a fine on the vessel or its skipper. Cases rarely go to court. Many criminals see fines as a cost of doing business, says Mr Copeland of Trygg Mat Tracking. Fisheries inspectors have a narrow purview. Too often operators involved in crew abuse, drug-running and other crimes not connected to fishing risk punishment only for minor offences such as being caught with too fine a net. Vessels frequently change name or flag of convenience, while owners hide behind brass-plate companies or opaque joint ventures. Ms Witbooi says a more sophisticated approach is needed to go after the invisible owner who is the ultimate beneficiary of crimes at sea. It is like chasing the mafia.
Above all, governments must cut subsidies for fishing fleets, economists suggest. These are by far the biggest factor motivating iffy fishing. Over $35bn of subsidies a year goes to fishing interests around the world (see chart). Much of that is well-intentioned, such as money that helps artisanal fishermen through support for small inshore fisheries. But roughly $22bn a year harms global fish stocks. Most is for fuel.
One of the world’s most environmentally destructive fisheries is bottom-trawling off the coast of west Africa. It turns the seabed into a wasteland. Most of it is done by Chinese operators working under the guise of joint ventures with well-connected locals. It is fuel-intensive. Without diesel subsidies, says National Geographic’s Mr Sala, this fishery would close tomorrow.
Without subsidies, China’s dark fleets in the eastern Pacific and the Indian Ocean would also be gone. Experts reckon that an end to subsidies and to forced labour would render half of all high-seas fishing unprofitable. Less fishing on the high seas would allow stocks of many species to recover. But the benefits go further, says Mr Sala: if just a fraction of the world’s harmful subsidies were diverted to better managing (more productive) coastal fisheries, a huge rebound in inshore stocks could take place, providing better food security and millions of jobs. In talks at the World Trade Organisation on limiting fishing subsidies, the Chinese government has proposed curbing others’ subsidies while protecting its own. But as this year’s furore over dark fleets shows, the cost to its reputation is rising.■
This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “The outlaw sea”
Low-rise, boot-cut jeans adorned with paisley embroidery and studs; candy-colored halter tops; ombré-tinted sunglasses dotted with glittering rhinestone hearts. These are just a few of the iconic, Y2K pieces that make up the ass-kicking wardrobe of McG’s 2000 take on Charlie’s Angels. Small details, like stitching and tapering, were key to telling the story of Charlie’s three powerhouse ladies Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu, who played private investigators Dylan, Natalie, and Alex. “The clothes also had to be very functional because they did all these karate kicks and had to fly through the air and stuff,” costume designer Joe Aulisi tells MTV News.
From stretchy fabrics to knee-high boots, whether they were fighting evil with high-flying martial arts moves while cheekily disguised as yodelers or dancing on stage at Soul Train on a first date, the angels always looked put together. But their clothes also matched their distinct personalities while still complementing each other and looking fierce on-screen. Take the jam-packed finale: In a fight against the villainous Eric Knox, Diaz’s Natalie, who is quirky and sporty, rocks a body-hugging top with a sheer, mesh back and tight black pants; Barrymore, who plays a free spirit and dresses more casually, wears a vintage T-shirt with jeans; Liu, who plays the bookish yet bossy Alex, wears an all-leather ensemble layered over silver chainmail. Naturally, it’s an iconic celebration of female empowerment.
The film, originally based on a sitcom of the same name from the 1970s, debuted 20 years ago this month, followed by a sequel in 2003 and a remake in 2019, but it has never felt more relevant to this moment. Plenty of trends from the early aughts have come back into style thanks to Gen Z’s growing interest in secondhand clothing along with the rise of reseller platforms like Depop and Etsy, while remakes of movies from that era have become increasingly commonplace. Nowadays, nostalgia in fashion and film offers a sweet escape to the past. That’s why MTV News spoke with Aulisi to learn more about how he toed the line between humor and sexiness to create standout wardrobes for everyone’s favorite three angels.
Columbia Pictures/Getty Images
MTV News: When I was rewatching the movie I noticed a lot of ombré sunglasses, which was amazing. What were some of the references for the costumes?
Joe Aulisi: We covered a lot of bases in terms of some retro-looking stuff, some more contemporary. Some of those little things were important even earlier than, obviously, 2000. But all of that was planned, and then small little bits of jewelry were sometimes specific to a character. We also tried to do a little nod to things at the time the movie came out so there was a larger frame of reference.
A lot of it was influenced by the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. One of the objectives with the costumes in general was they should be fun as well as being sexy, that they should have a playful look to them. California style was also part of it, as in the palette of all the bright colors and sunshine and all that stuff that comes with Los Angeles.
Ninety percent of the clothes I designed and had made, just to get a different look or to get multiples, because sometimes we needed six of the same thing with all these stunts they were doing and stunt people and photo doubles. That was a very heavily stunted show, so that requires more costumes that are designed so that you can raise your arms and you can do high kicks and you can do all these things that they had to do constantly throughout the whole movie.
MTV News: What was some of the inspiration behind each of the girls’ looks? How did you build out this narrative of who each of them were through the clothing you designed?
Aulisi: I think Cameron and Drew’s characters, and in real life, are equally free-spirited. They love the outdoors and are extroverted, so they wore lots of color and patterns because they were not afraid to take chances. But Lucy’s character was much more introverted and scientific. She was more uptight and, consequently, she had a more neutral palette and lots of black. There was just a more serious tone to her clothes compared to the other two girls.
MTV News: Cameron Diaz’s character wears a lot of halter tops and skinny, spaghetti-strap tank tops whereas the other two don’t.
Aulisi: Right. Cameron was very athletic, as well, and did a lot of dancing, so that was more freeing in terms of things like showing more skin — because it was also 2000. Now it’s just a much more sexually liberated period of clothing and what people are willing to wear and what you see on the runway. It’s very different than 20 years ago in terms of what was acceptable by the public and what they expected to see.
We wanted the clothes to look sexy but it wasn’t the overt sexiness that I see today with totally nude tops or sheer things with very little underneath. It was meant to be playful, fun-loving, youthful, spirited. All those things went into consideration of designing the costumes, and it was especially fun to do the disguises.
MTV News: Seems like humor also played a part.
Aulisi: Yes, the belly-dancing outfits were meant to be sexy but also humorous; it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, which I think the audience got. But the clothes also had to be very functional because they did all these karate kicks and had to fly through the air and stuff. But that all had to be figured out ahead of time, before the clothes were made. We used a lot of stretch fabrics. Sometimes they had to wear special shoes because they needed to be covered more, or they had gloves on, because they had gear on.
MTV News: I noticed the color black became really prominent towards the end. What did the color black represent for the characters?
Aulisi: They were undercover many of the times. They were working at night and all these things helped them disappear. It was also very magical on camera and we added details so it wasn’t just plain black ensembles. There was black leather and chainmail so you could get a flash of skin.
MTV News: Will you tell me more about the beautiful red gown with the crystals Lucy Liu’s character wears at the cocktail party?
Aulisi: I wanted to do something flattering and something that would really catch your eye. She is the only one in red fabric, which really picked up the light, and then it was heavily embellished with jewels. That was because there were quite a few people in that scene and they were, you know, background people for the most part. So to make her pop, I put her in red.
MTV News: There was a lot of embroidered denim. I noticed Drew was wearing an embroidered and studded denim jacket at one point.
Aulisi: That was a throwback back to the ‘70s. She had to have a slight hippie vibe to her character, she was more Bohemian and had that second hand store kind of thrown-together look. She was probably the most casual of the three. She loved vintage T-shirts and she played in a rock band at one point.
Columbia Pictures/Getty Images
MTV News: Boot-cut jeans were big throughout the film.
Aulisi: Not all of them but some of them, because what it does is it gives you a little move. I think bell bottoms would have been OK, but it had nothing to do, again, with when we shot the movie in 2000, but the idea of a flare-cut thing when you’re running and if you’re flying through the air, you get that motion at the bottom. The girls just looked good in it.
MTV News: What were some of the challenges you ran into when building out their looks?
Aulisi: They’re three very different sizes but we tried to make them appear the same. But the same outfit on three people very seldomly works, even though they’re similar. So that was always a consideration, to make them an ensemble without putting the three identical outfits. All these things that go into the considerations of the design and then the way something is executed in terms of the way there’s some fabrics that were used.
As the designer, you have to always consider, especially when you’ve got three people that are always on screen together, that you have enough differentiation between the three actors and can still make them look like they’re part of the scene even though they’re not wearing the same exact thing. Often they’re not colors that necessarily complement each other, but they still have their own life to them. As you could imagine, it was a really fun job and everybody had a good time. It was fun to dress the characters.
MTV News: There’s a lot of joy radiating through the characters.
Aulisi: Yeah, it sort of sparkles. It’s tongue-in-cheek humor and it moves very quickly. And the clothes got a lot of recognition, which I really enjoyed.
MTV News: Did you notice how the film impacted fashion trends after it came out?
Aulisi: I am a costume designer and not a stylist, so my head is much more focused on the characters and how things look on film and that kind of thing, as opposed to trying to make some fashion statement or keeping up with the fashion trends. What happens is that by the time the movie launches nowadays, the trends are already yesterday.
FOR THE industry’s critics, it is a scandal that exposes exactly what they have been warning about. Many people have an almost instinctive distaste for the business in selling long-term-residence rights in a country or even citizenship there for cash, usually in the form of an authorised investment. So a documentary this month on Al Jazeera, a Qatar-based television channel, seeming to uncover corruption in an “investment migration” scheme offered by Cyprus, did not not seem especially shocking. It showed Cypriot politicians filmed in a sting operation, apparently willing to sell their country’s passport to a (fictitious) Chinese businessman who, in the cover story, had been convicted to seven years in jail for money-laundering, and so should have been ineligible.
For the industry’s practitioners—the consultants, accountants, bankers, wealth managers, lawyers and government departments selling their country’s charms—this is a blow. Although the politicians involved have protested their innocence, Cyprus has suspended its “golden passport” scheme from November 1st. European Union officials in Brussels and members of the European Parliament were already hostile to such schemes. And in response to the latest scandal, the European Commission has begun legal action (“infringement procedures”) to investigate both Cyprus’s scheme and one offered by Malta. It is an extremely sensitive issue for the EU. On the one hand, no issue is more jealousy guarded as a “national” competence than whom a country allows to be a citizen. On the other hand, a passport from an EU member confers the right to live and work anywhere in the EU; and a “Schengen” visa allows free travel to 22 EU members and four other countries.
Defenders of the schemes insist that criminals seeking a bolthole are the exception, and that they are making great strides in imposing stricter “due diligence” standards. The vast majority of their customers, they argue, are honest, respectable people with a legitimate hankering after an alternative to the passport and residence rights they acquired by the lottery of birth. The loss of Cyprus restricts their options. But there are plenty of others, and demand is booming, despite the huge decline in global mobility brought by the pandemic. Indeed, covid-19 has spurred interest in investment migration.
“The industry is not merely robust in turbulence,” says Christian Nesheim, editor of Investment Migration Insider, a trade journal, “it thrives on it.” Indeed it really took off partly as a response to the global financial crisis of 2007-08. Like so many other businesses, it ground to a halt in the early days of the pandemic, as travel became impossible for much of the world and governments stopped processing paperwork. But since then it has enjoyed “more demand than we have ever seen”, in the words of Paddy Blewer of Henley & Partners, which advises both individuals seeking new residence or citizenship and governments designing programmes for them. People in countries with high infection rates and creaking health services began to see that as a reason to move elsewhere. And people with passports that had previously found themselves able to travel the world more or less unimpeded found their countries on banned or quarantine lists. At the beginning of the year, for example, according to Henley’s research, an American passport entitled its holder to travel to 185 countries without first securing a visa. That number has since shrunk to fewer than 75.
Around the world, nearly 100 countries offer a “residence by investment” programme, including many of the world’s richest countries, such as America, Australia, Britain and New Zealand. Only a dozen or so countries offer citizenship—including five Caribbean island-states (Antigua and Barbuda, Dominic, Grenada, St Kitts and St Lucia), a Pacific one (Vanuatu), Jordan, Turkey and, within the European Union, Austria, Bulgaria and Malta (as well as, until the end of the month, Cyprus). The citizenship or residence by investment (CRBI) business traces its ancestry to a law passed in 1984 in tiny St Kitts and Nevis, offering citizenship to foreigners who made a “substantial” investment. How substantial varies from country to country. In Cyprus’s case at least €2m ($2.3m) in investment, usually in property, is required. Malta demands a “donation” of €650,000 to a government fund, €150,000 invested in government bonds and a property purchase or long-term lease. Research this subject online, and you will soon be seeing advertisements offering a choice of Caribbean citizenships “from $150,000”.
Al Jazeera’s choice of a Chinese applicant made sense, China is by far the biggest market for most CRBI schemes. Much the most popular destination for Chinese investment migrants is America. But the waiting-list for Chinese applicants to America’s “EB-5” long-term visa programme is 10-15 years. The EU is a good second choice. The commonest reason Chinese people want residence elsewhere is education. Parents want to spare their offspring the gruelling university-entrance exam, the gaokao. And they believe that a foreign education will open up opportunities unavailable at home. Even childless Chinese also see the attractions of a “plan B” should they find the political or economic climate in China inhospitable.
China’s success in containing the virus and the deterioration in its relations with America and some other countries have done nothing, apparently, to dent demand this year. A worsening climate of repression continues to make the option of an alternative residence abroad seem desirable. That is especially true in Hong Kong since the imposition in June of a draconian national-security law. In fact, many Hong Kong residents already have a second potential home. In the 1980s and 1990s, as the handover from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 loomed, Hong Kong was a big driver of the growth of the CRBI industry.
Bruno L’ecuyer, chief executive of the Investment Migration Council, an industry lobbying group, says demand is also increasing during the pandemic in other big markets such as India and Russia. And the Middle East seems to be behind the rapid growth in Turkey’s citizenship by investment programme, which granted 4,000 passports between March and May. Worldwide, says Mr L’ecuyer, the business is “slowly becoming more mainstream”. It is no longer just for the “ultra” and “very high net-worth” individuals. These days, it seems, merely very rich will do.
What has been new during the pandemic is burgeoning interest from countries previously seen as destinations rather than sources of investment migration, such as Britain, and, in particular, America, which has, as Mr Nesheim points out, far more very rich people than any other country. In Britain, interest in second passports or residences has been increasing ever since the country voted for Brexit in 2016. In America, the election of Donald Trump that year had a similar effect. In both countries, the pandemic has accelerated the trend. Henley reports an increase of 238% in inquiries from Americans in the first nine months of this year compared with the same period in 2019, though they still make up only a small percentage of the global business’s overall numbers.
Indeed, those numbers themselves are fairly small—about 5,000 passports a year, and several times that number of long-term resident’s visas. And the industry likes to point to the good done with the large sums of money raised from investors—facilitating the rebuilding of Dominica after Hurricane Maria in late 2017, for example; or Cyprus’s recovery from the financial crisis. In Dominica the citizenship by investment programme was forecast by the government to make up 51% of recurrent government revenue and 25% of GDP this year. Doubtless, as minds turn to the cost of recovery from the pandemic, many governments will find investment migration’s attractions hard to resist. The industry is confident Cyprus’s scheme will be back.
Clarification (October 20th 2020): This article has been updated to include the European Commission’s legal action against Cyprus and Malta.
PEOPLE WERE hungry during lockdown. So Francis Zaake, a Ugandan member of parliament, bought some rice and sugar and had it delivered to his neediest constituents. For this charitable act, he was arrested. Mr Zaake is a member of the opposition, and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has ordered that only the government may hand out food aid. Anyone else who does so can be charged with murder, Mr Museveni has threatened, since they might do it in a disorderly way, attract crowds and thereby spread the coronavirus.
Mr Zaake had been careful not to put his constituents at risk. Rather than having crowds converge on one place to pick up the food parcels, he had them delivered to people’s doors by motorbike-taxi. Nonetheless, the next day police and soldiers jumped over his fence while he was showering and broke into his house. They dragged him into a van and threw him in a cell. He says they beat, kicked and cut him, crushed his testicles, sprayed a blinding chemical into his eyes, called him a dog and told him to quit politics. He claims that one sneered: “We can do whatever we want to you or even kill you…No one will demonstrate for you because they are under lockdown.” The police say he inflicted the injuries on himself and is fishing for sympathy with foreign donors.
The charges against him were eventually dropped, but the message was clear. “The president doesn’t want the opposition to give out food,” says Mr Zaake, who walks with crutches and wears sunglasses to protect his eyes. “He knows that people will like us [if we do].”
The pandemic has been terrible not only for the human body but also for the body politic. Freedom House, a think-tank in Washington, counts 80 countries where the quality of democracy and respect for human rights have deteriorated since the pandemic began. The list includes both dictatorships that have grown nastier and democracies where standards have slipped. Only one country, Malawi, has improved (see map). Covid-19 “has fuelled a crisis for democracy around the world,” argue Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz of Freedom House. Global freedom has been declining since just before the financial crisis of 2007-08, by their reckoning. Covid-19 has accelerated this pre-existing trend in several ways.
The disease poses a grave and fast-moving threat to every nation. Governments have, quite reasonably, assumed emergency powers to counter it. But such powers can be abused. Governments have selectively banned protests on the grounds that they might spread the virus, silenced critics and scapegoated minorities. They have used emergency measures to harass dissidents. And they have taken advantage of a general atmosphere of alarm. With everyone’s attention on covid-19, autocrats and would-be autocrats in many countries can do all sorts of bad things, safe in the knowledge that the rest of the world will barely notice, let alone object.
Measuring the pandemic’s effect on democracy and human rights is hard. Without covid-19, would China’s rulers still have inflicted such horrors on Muslim Uyghurs this year? Would Thailand’s king have grabbed nearly absolute powers? Would Egypt have executed 15 political prisoners in a single weekend this month? Perhaps. But these outrages would surely have faced stronger opposition, both at home and abroad. Granted, the current American administration makes less fuss about human rights than previous ones have and covid-19 has not changed that. But the voice from the White House is not the only one that counts.
Last year was a year of mass protests, which swept six continents, brought down five governments (Algeria, Bolivia, Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan) and forced others to rethink unpopular policies, as in Chile, France and Hong Kong. This year, by contrast, governments have banned mass gatherings to enforce social distancing. For many, this is wonderfully convenient.
For example, in India, the world’s largest democracy, the biggest campaign of civil resistance for decades erupted shortly before the pandemic. For 100 days protesters raged against proposed changes to citizenship laws that would discriminate against Muslims and potentially render millions of them stateless. These protests petered out after a curfew was imposed in response to covid-19, since it was no longer possible to occupy the streets.
Later, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government began imposing strict local lockdowns, it singled out neighbourhoods which had held protests, many of which were Muslim. Heavy police barricades locked in residents for weeks.
In early September the government declared that in the upcoming parliamentary session there would be no Question Hour for the opposition and no private members’ bills—long-standing institutions that allow opposition MPs to query the government directly. The excuse: the health risks of covid-19, along with assertions that in a crisis, legislative time was too precious to waste on noisy debate. The opposition walked out, allowing Mr Modi to ram through 25 bills in three days. He then suspended the session eight days early, having apparently forgotten the earlier excuse that time was short.
At the outset of the crisis Mr Modi, who has a knack for the theatrics of power, called on citizens to bang on pots, and later to light sacred lamps, in a show of solidarity to fight the pandemic. These displays, taken up by his supporters with glee, were not spontaneous expressions of support for doctors and nurses, like similar displays in Italy, Spain or Britain. Rather, they were a demonstration of Mr Modi’s power.
H.L. Mencken, an American journalist, once wrote that “the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” He could have added that when people have real cause for alarm, they are even keener to be led to safety. Some put their trust in the sober calculations of evidence-driven experts. Others put their faith in strongmen.
Mr Modi has racked up colossal approval ratings this year, even as he presides over a double catastrophe of mass death and economic slump. So has Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, despite the largest reported caseload in South-East Asia. Mr Duterte’s poll numbers may be coloured by fear; he has had thousands of people, supposedly criminal suspects, killed without trial, a campaign that appears to have intensified during the pandemic. But many Filipinos admire his grim style—extending a “state of calamity” for another year last month, temporarily banning many nurses from going to work overseas and vowing to try the first covid-19 vaccine himself to show it is safe.
Popular, you’re gonna be popular
Admiration for Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s militaristic president, is as high as ever, despite over 5m covid-19 cases and more than 150,000 deaths. This is partly because he has handed out emergency aid to 67m hard-up Brazilians, but his macho posturing also appeals to many voters. He caught covid-19 and recovered, crediting his background as an athlete. He declared: “We have to face [the virus] like a man, damn it, not like a little boy.” He blames state governors for being so scared of the disease that they wreck people’s livelihoods unnecessarily.
That strikes a chord with some. When São Paulo’s lockdown was at its tightest, a clothing shop was illegally letting customers in through a tiny metal shutter door. “The governors shut things down to hurt the economy and make Bolsonaro look bad,” grumbled the owner, who shared his president’s dismissive attitude towards covid-19. “The death numbers are a lie,” he said: “I’m only wearing this mask out of respect for our clients. I don’t need it.”
Strongmen find it easier to impress the masses when they control the news. In April Reporters Without Borders, a watchdog, counted 38 countries using the coronavirus as an excuse to harass critical media. That number has now more than doubled, to 91, says Freedom House.
Many governments have criminalised “fake news” about the pandemic. Often, this means commentary that displeases the ruling party. Nicaragua’s regime plans to ban news that “causes alarm, fear or anxiety”. El Salvador has relaunched a state television outlet, having purged 70 journalists since President Nayib Bukele came to power last year. “I am watching a very balanced newscast,” grinned Mr Bukele. “I don’t know what the opposition will see.”
Anyone in Zimbabwe who publishes or disseminates “false” information about an official, or that impedes the response to the pandemic, faces up to 20 years in prison. Two journalists were arrested when they tried to visit in hospital three opposition activists, including an MP, who had been abducted, tortured and forced to drink urine by ruling-party thugs.
All around the world, ordinary people are being gagged, too. Some 116 citizen journalists are currently imprisoned, says Reporters Without Borders. In Uzbekistan people entering quarantine facilities have had to hand over their phones, supposedly to prevent the devices from spreading the virus but actually so they cannot take photos of the woeful conditions inside.
Medics, who see covid-19 fiascos close up, face extra pressure to shut up. China’s rulers silenced the doctors in Wuhan who first sounded the alarm about the new virus. Censorship can be lethal. Had China listened to doctors and acted faster to curb the disease, it would not have spread so fast around the world.
Still, other regimes have copied China’s example. In September the Turkish Medical Association accused Turkey’s government of downplaying the outbreak. A ruling-party ally called for the group to be shut down and its leaders investigated for stoking “panic”. Yet the doctors were right. The health ministry later admitted that its daily figures did not include asymptomatic patients. An opposition lawmaker shared a document suggesting that the true number of cases in a single day in September was 19 times the official tally.
Egypt’s government says it is coping admirably with the pandemic. A dozen doctors have been arrested for suggesting otherwise, as have several journalists. One, Mohamed Monir, died of covid-19 contracted during detention.
Of the 24 countries that had national elections scheduled between January and August, nine were disrupted by the pandemic. Some delays were justified. But as South Korea showed, a ballot can be held safely if suitable precautions are taken. Some other governments were in no hurry. Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved the opposition-controlled parliament in March and did not allow fresh elections until August. In the meantime, he ran the country without lawmakers to check him.
In Hong Kong pro-democracy candidates were expected to do well in elections in September. Citing the risk of covid-19, the territory’s pro-communist leaders delayed them for a year.
Burundi’s election in May was probably never going to be clean, but the virus supplied the perfect excuse to exclude pesky foreign observers. Twelve days before the election they were told that they would have to quarantine on arrival in the country for 14 days, thus missing the vote.
In Russia Vladimir Putin has turned the virus to his advantage. He shifted responsibility for a strict lockdown to regional governors, but then took credit for easing it. In the summer he held a constitutional pseudo-referendum to allow himself to stay in office until 2036. Citing public health, he extended the vote to a week and allowed people to vote at home, in courtyards, in playgrounds and on tree stumps. The vote was impossible to observe or verify. Mr Putin declared a resounding victory. Parliament voted to change the voting procedure permanently.
In countries with too few checks and balances, rules to curb the virus can be used for other ends. On a dark road in Senegal, a policeman recently stopped a taxi and detained the driver for wearing his anti-covid mask on his chin. After 45 minutes, shaking with fury, the driver returned to his vehicle. The cop had threatened him with dire punishments unless he handed over some cash, he explained to his passenger, a reporter for The Economist. He drove off as fast as he could, cursing.
While petty officials abuse the rules to pad their wages, strongmen typically abuse them to crush dissent. Police assaulted civilians in 59 countries and detained them in 66 for reasons linked to the pandemic. Violence was most common in countries Freedom House classifies as “partly free”, where people are not yet too scared to protest, but their rulers would like them to be.
In Zimbabwe, for example, many of the 34 new regulations passed during a national lockdown are still in place, and have been used as a pretext for myriad abuses. In September the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, an umbrella group, released a report listing 920 cases of torture, extrajudicial killings, unlawful arrests and assaults on citizens by the security services in the first 180 days of lockdown. One man was forced to roll around in raw sewage. Many had dogs set on them. Dozens of opposition activists have been arrested or beaten, including a former finance minister. There were too many everyday cases of intimidation and harassment to count.
Many strongmen are also chipping away at pre-pandemic checks on their power. Nicaragua has borrowed an idea from Mr Putin: a law will require NGOs that receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents”. India used similar rules to shut down the local arm of Amnesty International, which closed in September after its bank accounts were frozen.
In Kazakhstan trials are taking place on Zoom, leading some defendants in politically charged cases to complain that this makes it easy for judges to have selective hearing. Alnur Ilyashev, a pro-democracy campaigner who was sentenced to three years of restricted movement for “disseminating false information”, said he could not always hear his own trial.
Nothing spreads like fear
Panic about a contagious disease makes people irrational and xenophobic. A study in 2015 by Huggy Rao of Stanford University and Sunasir Dutta of the University of Minnesota found that people were less likely to favour legalising irregular immigrants if told about a new strain of flu. Many autocrats, even if they have not read the academic literature, grasp that blaming out-groups is a good way to win support.
Mr Modi’s government tars Muslims as superspreaders. Bulgaria imposed harsher lockdowns on Romany neighbourhoods than on others. Turkey’s religious authorities blame gay people. Malaysian officials blame migrant workers, some of whom have been caned and deported.
Minorities have had an especially grim time in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto president, threatened severe penalties for residents who re-enter the country illegally. People understood this to refer to the Rohingyas, a persecuted Muslim group, roughly 1m of whom have fled into neighbouring countries. The rumour that Rohingyas were infecting the nation spread rapidly. A cartoon circulating online showed a Rohingya man, labelled as an “illegal interloper”, crossing the border, carrying covid-19.
Meanwhile, a UN rapporteur warns that the pandemic has “emboldened” Myanmar’s army, which has stepped up its war on secessionists. The Arakan Army, a rebel group, offered ceasefires in April, June and September; all were rebuffed. In May and June the army bombed civilians, razed villages and tortured non-combatants, says Amnesty International. Some 200,000 have fled to camps for displaced people, according to a local NGO, the Rakhine Ethnics Congress. Since covid-19 struck, donations have declined and supplies of food to the camps have dwindled.
Abusers and autocrats have not had it all their own way this year. The pandemic has drained their treasuries. Their finances will still be wobbly even when a vaccine is found and the public-health excuse for curbs on freedom is no longer plausible.
And people are pushing back. Although 158 countries have imposed restrictions on demonstrations, big protests have erupted in at least 90 since the pandemic began. Furious crowds in Kyrgyzstan this month forced the government to order a re-run of a tainted election. Protests in Nigeria prompted the government to disband a notoriously torture-and-murder-prone police unit on October 11th. Mass rallies in Belarus have so far failed to reverse a rigged election there, but have made it clear that the dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, has lost the consent of his people.
Institutions are pushing back, too. A court in Lesotho barred the prime minister from using the virus as an excuse to close parliament. Russia’s opposition parties refuse to be cowed even by the poisoning of their main leader, Alexei Navalny.
With luck, when covid-19 eventually recedes, the global atmosphere of fear will recede with it. People may find the capacity to care a bit more about abuses that occur far away, or to people unlike themselves. They may even elect leaders who speak up for universal values. But for the time being, the outlook is grim.■
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SPEAKING IN PARLIAMENT on October 12th, Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, grappled with a problem facing countries across the world: how to contain a resurgence of the coronavirus, without imposing a national lockdown. Like other governments, his has responded so far with a patchwork of varying local rules for England (which differ somewhat from those set by the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales). So he said the government was “simplifying, standardising” them, into a three-tier hierarchy of restrictions. In areas with a “very high alert level”, pubs will be shut and indoor social mixing will be banned. The government will “work with local government leaders on the additional measures which should be taken”. That may not be easy. In England, as elsewhere, management of the pandemic has frayed relations between central and lower levels of government almost to breaking-point.
From northern England to the Mediterranean, local politicians are in revolt. In Manchester, the mayor has complained that the lack of discussion and consultation makes the government “impossible to deal with”; in Marseilles, the deputy mayor has grumbled that decisions from Paris “come like a stone dropped from a bridge”; a battle between the Spanish government and the local authorities in Madrid ended up in court. All three cities were aghast at new local lockdowns imposed by the central government.
Some tension is inevitable. Worldwide, the number of new coronavirus cases is spreading faster than ever, with more than 200,000 infections reported each day on average. Governments have neither the economic resources nor the political backing to sustain another national lockdown. Yet local ones bring local objections.
Arguments over jurisdiction, process and central-government high-handedness cannot disguise a real conflict of interest between local and central politicians. It seems both unjust and unnecessary for a government to impose nationwide rules when infection rates can vary widely from place to place. In England, in the seven days ending on October 9th, the city of Nottingham in the Midlands had 834 covid-19 cases per 100,000 people. In the West Country, Cornwall and the Scilly Isles had 29. But when central governments enact lockdowns in the most severely affected areas, local politicians face intense pressure from their constituents and businesses to resist harsh measures that are not imposed elsewhere. In the parliamentary exchanges following Mr Johnson’s announcement on October 12th, Jeremy Hunt, a Conservative former health minister, pointed to China, Italy and South Korea as evidence that strict early local lockdowns are the best way of avoiding national ones.
Some of the direct problems in the fight against the pandemic have come in countries with highly centralised decision-making. In India, for example, a national lockdown imposed in March later led tens of millions of unemployed casual workers to head for their home villages, spreading the virus to uninfected parts of the country. In England, to a lesser extent, poor management of the virus has been blamed on overcentralisation. Many critics point to places such as Germany, one of the European countries admired for its handling of the pandemic, which has a public-health system embedded in local government. But even there in the early days of the pandemic tensions arose as the federal government, which has very limited competences in this area, struggled to impose any sort of consistency across the 16 states, the leaders of which would sometimes squabble in public over their approaches to covid restrictions. In Italy, parts of which suffered terribly in March and April, responsibility for health rests almost entirely with regional governments (Rome sets overall guidelines, though that includes the power to declare lockdowns in “red zones”).
Devolving decision-making does not eliminate disgruntlement. There can also be rows between two sub-national levels of government. In Italy Luigi de Magistris, the mayor of Naples, accused Vincenzo De Luca, the governor of its region, Campania, of impoverishing small-business owners by ordering the closure of bars and restaurants. Or in New York, the state governor, Andrew Cuomo, has bickered with the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, over how to handle the virus. And citizens themselves can object to policies, whichever level of administration imposed them. In New York itself, for example, angry ultra-Orthodox Jews have staged protests against restrictions on houses of worship.
Spain has perhaps suffered the worst of both worlds. Having centralised too much in the spring, it then went to the other extreme. Health services are devolved to the 17 regional governments. When the pandemic gathered force in March the national government imposed a national lockdown and centralised authority over health services and policing. Spain is still suffering proportionately the worst covid-19 numbers of any large country in Europe, with 258 cases per 100,000 people in the past 14 days and more than twice that in Madrid. The left-wing national government of Pedro Sánchez is at loggerheads with the conservative regional administration of Isabel Díaz Ayuso in Madrid. On October 9th Mr Sánchez decreed a 15-day state of emergency in the capital, to re-impose restrictions on entering or leaving the city that a court had knocked down at Ms Díaz Ayuso’s request. Spaniards have discovered that their political leaders are much more interested in squabbling with each other than in protecting their health.
And politicians everywhere are interested in their own careers. In most countries, they say they do not want the response to the pandemic to be politicised. But it always is, which is another dynamic that complicates local-centre relations. For local politicians with national ambitions, covid-19, the burning issue of the day, is a stick with which to beat incumbents. In Indonesia, for example, rivalry between the president, Joko Widodo, and Anies Baswedan, the governor of Jakarta, the capital, who is assumed to have presidential aspirations, has manifested itself in a tussle over lockdown policy. The coronavirus has interrupted many aspects of everyday life. But not politics.
UNTIL THIS year many New Yorkers had never heard of Hart Island, where the city’s unclaimed dead are buried. Then, in the midst of the pandemic, video of contractors digging long trenches there went viral. Around 120 bodies were sent to the tiny islet every week, as burial grounds and crematoriums struggled to keep pace with covid-19. One funeral home in Brooklyn was sued for stacking bodies in an unrefrigerated rental truck. At the peak of the epidemic Sal Farenga, an undertaker in the Bronx, was doing three times as many funerals as usual and turning away 50 grieving families a day. “It was heartbreaking,” Mr Farenga says.
Covid-19 has caused more than a million recorded deaths, most not in developing countries like Brazil (pictured) but in developed ones. That cuts against a long-standing trend. Since the second world war, wealthy states have had few massive episodes of premature fatality. Their cultures have tended to push mortality out of sight, into hospitals and out of polite conversation. Now, the pandemic is nudging people in the rich world to adopt the open and pragmatic approaches to death that are more typical in developing countries, where poverty, poor health care, dangerous roads and armed conflict keep people on familiar terms with the grim reaper.
A new survey by Hospice UK, a charity, found that this year 40% of British who lost a family member to covid-19 wrote down their end-of-life wishes, and a third planned their own funerals. (Overall, less than a fifth of Britons have done either.) More people are opting to die at home: since early June the percentage has been 30-40 points above the five-year average in England and Wales. Reminders of the epidemic—not just news reports but masks and hand-sanitiser bottles—raise the subliminal awareness of death which psychologists term “mortality salience”. “We are surrounded by death whether we like it or not, and it is healthier for us to accept it,” says Tracey Bleakley, head of Hospice UK.
In many ways, rich countries are reverting to old habits. Until the 20th century early death was common in America and Europe. In Victorian Britain families dressed up their departed and posed with them for photographs. An old saw had it that the front room (now the venue of TV dinners) was used for two things: a visit from the queen or laying out a body. But the first world war and the influenza pandemic of 1918-20 left the public exhausted by loss, and an industry emerged to take it off their hands. “I don’t think the public was aware of how [completely] death would be taken away from families and homes,” says Caitlin Doughty, a mortician and advocate for the “death positive” movement, which promotes discussion of it.
In the rich world today, bereavement has been professionalised, medicalised and sanitised. Many youngsters—especially well-off ones—have never seen a corpse. Only 30% of Americans and 25% of Britons die at home. Most pass away in hospitals or nursing homes, where friends and relatives see less of them in their final days. Distance breeds squeamishness. In a recent poll 90% of Germans said most people don’t know how to act around someone who is dying.
The pandemic has helped people to get over such shyness. Susan Barsky Reid launched the Death Café in 2011, organising meetups between strangers over cake and tea (and more recently over Zoom) to discuss everything from estate planning to theories of the afterlife. The number of events has shot up this year. “You don’t get pregnant by talking about sex and you don’t die by talking about death,” she says, but many people think it bad luck. Indeed, it took the pandemic to nudge Ms Barsky Reid herself to broach the topic of end-of-life wishes with her husband.
Such conversations are, literally, morbid. But talking about death can help the old and sick feel less anxious. Frank conversations about end-of-life wishes avert conflict by letting loved ones know whether a patient would want to be taken to hospital or put on a ventilator. Demand for help making a will, advance statement or lasting power of attorney has shot up. Ian Bond, head of will-writing services at Britain’s Law Society, says not just the elderly but medics and young people are calling on his services. “Everyone wants to be remembered for the person they are and not the mess they left behind,” says Mr Bond.
Among medical professionals, the epidemic has accelerated a movement towards helping patients face up to the possibility of death. Ariadne Labs, a research group in Boston, published a conversation guide in April instructing clinicians to tell their patients that not everyone survives the virus, and to ask them about end-of-life decisions. The toolkit lays out the big questions. Whom do you trust to take medical decisions on your behalf? Which abilities are so important to your life that you can’t imagine living without them? It has been downloaded by 9,000 people.
Massachusetts General Hospital, also in Boston, began training doctors in 2017 to have such conversations and document them in patients’ files. In April and May alone the hospital recorded 5,100 conversations, two-thirds as many as the total up to then. “It is mortality salience that allows clinicians, patients and families to get over the emotional barriers,” says Vicki Jackson, head of the hospital’s palliative care and geriatric medicine division.
Even before covid-19, people in the rich world were wondering whether the end of life had to be a clinical experience. In 2017 more people in America died at home than in hospitals for the first time since the early 20th century. The epidemic has reinforced that trend. Many people shun hospitals and care homes for fear of catching the virus or contributing to pressure on health services. Strict rules around visits by loved ones have made patients more reluctant to spend their final days in institutions.
None of this is new in developing countries, where lots of people die at home and cultural taboos on discussing death are often nonexistent. The Acholi people of northern Uganda make little effort to keep death out of sight: village elders meet to discuss support for the family, and the tombstones of ancestors buried on the family homestead are important markers of land ownership. Indeed, one reason counting fatalities from covid-19 is difficult in poor countries is that so many victims die in their own houses. A study of cancer patients in 2015 found almost 60% of deaths in Mexico occurred at home, compared with 12% in South Korea. In some places the issue is access to health care, in others it is simply custom.
For the Tana Torajans in Indonesia the home is deathbed and funeral parlour. Saba Mairi’ recalls losing her grandfather when she was 11. Her family kept his body in a room next to the kitchen, offering him rice and water at mealtimes. Even after the funeral five years later the family did not say goodbye. Following Torajan tradition, they periodically fetch mummified bodies from their tombs, clean them, dress them in new clothes and throw a party. “For us,” says Ms Saba, now 36, “they are still family members and we love them.”
Some traditional practices had already been modernising before the pandemic, though not necessarily in the direction of Western modesty. As incomes have risen in northern Uganda, families have begun using professional funeral services rather than doing the job themselves, sometimes printing T-shirts with the face of the deceased. In Ghana modern families routinely place deceased relatives in deep-freezers for months or years while they save up money for the funeral, a celebratory occasion which can last for days.
Yet in some parts of the developing world, covid-19 may be sparking a secular turn. In the Middle East places of worship have been spurned as hotspots of contagion. Mourning has moved online, where religious authorities have less reach. Such is the anger at Iran’s ruling clerics for their botched handling of the pandemic that mourners are posting poetry rather than scripture. “Please no religious recitations,” requested one family in the Iranian city of Shiraz. “The nurse became more holy than the imam,” says Hamed Abdel-Samad, an Egyptian-born lecturer in Islamic studies living in Germany.
In the West, ironically, the pandemic is threatening the traditional funeral industry. America’s National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) says cremation rates have risen, partly because some regulators banned burials for victims of covid-19 in case corpses carry the virus. This furthers a decades-long shift that squeezes the industry’s profitability. In 2015 cremations overtook burials as the most common form of funeral in America. They typically cost around $5,150 with all the extras, compared with $7,640 to go six feet under.
It’s your funeral
Adding to undertakers’ woes are limits on large gatherings. NFDA members say families are postponing memorials. They have started offering live-streaming options, but those reduce in-person guest lists. That could stick when the virus passes: impious mourners tend to stage simpler ceremonies, and the share of Americans who think it very important to have a religious funeral fell from 50% in 2012 to 35% in 2019.
Lately, those seeking less old-fashioned burial methods have been flocking to a lush forest 45 minutes outside Frankfurt. The woodland, popular with picnicking families, is also a funeral ground where youcan have your ashes buried in biodegradable urns. Alexa Drebes, a local ranger, had to double the number of tours she ran last month. The pandemic, she says, has made people of all ages more conscious of death.
Even for those not talking about it, reminders of the epidemic are everywhere. That has provided a natural experiment for researchers of a psychological notion called Terror Management Theory. This holds that it is the awareness of mortality which sets humans apart from other animals. Researchers find that as the crisis goes on Americans agree more with traditional gender stereotypes such as that men should be brave and that women should be clean, perhaps reflecting a need for certainties in the face of death. (They also think a consciousness of human ephemerality may foster boozing and snacking.)
Yet acknowledging mortality doesn’t have to be depressing. A Bhutanese saying has it that contemplating death five times a day brings happiness. With that in mind, an app called WeCroak sends its users five daily quotations reminding them of their own impermanence. In a pandemic, such an app may seem redundant. But if covid-19 forces people in the rich world to start thinking and talking about death in a more candid, practical way, it will have achieved something that doctors, lawyers, morticians and psychologists have been struggling to do for decades.■
This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Deathly silence”
IN A TYPICAL year, one or two people might win the Nobel Peace prize. This year, 17,000 did. That is the number of employees at the World Food Programme, which was declared the winner of this year’s prize on October 9th. The prize was given to the organisation, a branch of the United Nations, for its work feeding some 100m people, passing over 317 other nominees including Greta Thunberg, a teenage Swedish climate-change activist, and Donald Trump, a septuagenarian American climate-change denier (the American president was never likely to win; he was nominated by a far-right member of the Norwegian parliament). The WFP’s boss, David Beasley, tweeted that he was “deeply humbled”.
The decision to grant an organisation the Nobel peace prize might be seen in some quarters as a retreat from controversy by the Nobel committee. Last year the award was given to Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister of Ethiopia, for making peace with Eritrea and seeming to open up space for democratic dissent. But a year later Ethiopia remains deeply troubled and Mr Abiy is not as popular as he was. Bestowing the prize on the WFP, which is less likely to disappoint than any political leader, is a safe option.
Yet the granting of the Nobel peace prize to big international organisations is not such a novelty. In 2012 the European Union was the winner; in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change got the gong. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has won twice, in 1954 and 1981. Perhaps the surprise this year is that it is the WFP, rather than the World Health Organisation (WHO), which won the prize. Bookies had considered the latter the favourite, perhaps unsurprisingly, given how 2020 has been dominated by a health crisis.
The focus on hunger, however, makes sense. Governments everywhere are desperate to bring an end to the pandemic. But hunger has been growing quietly for years, and 2019 was the hungriest year recorded by the Food Security Information Network, a project of the WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and other NGOs, which since 2015 has been gathering data on how many people worldwide are close to starvation. The rise was largely a consequence of wars in places like South Sudan, Yemen and the Central African Republic. This year, thanks to the covid-19 pandemic, things are likely to be far worse. Rather than war, this year it is the dramatic falls in the incomes of the poorest people that is causing hunger. There is as much food to go around, but the poor can no longer afford to buy it. The number of hungry people might double, reckons the WFP, from 135m in 2019 to 265m at the end of this year.
Moreover, the WFP’s budget has been slashed in recent years. Last year the organisation received $8.05bn from its donors, by far the biggest of which is the United States. This year so far it has received only $6.35bn. Many countries, such as Britain, link their aid budgets to GDP figures which have fallen sharply. Britain provided roughly $700m of the WFP’s funding in 2019. This year its aid budget will fall by £2.9bn ($3.8bn). Under Mr Trump America had turned away from funding big multilateral organisations even before the pandemic hit, though the WFP has escaped the fate of the WHO, to which Mr Trump gave notice of America’s withdrawal in July. In Uganda food rations for South Sudanese and Congolese refugees have been cut. In Yemen the WFP has had to reduce rations by half.
Compared with cuts of that magnitude, the prize money of SKr10m ($1.1m) is a drop in the ocean. But at least the prize, though uncontroversial, will certainly raise the profile of the organisation. If it helps to persuade some governments to keep funding it, it may prove one of the more valuable Nobel prizes in years.
WHEN AMERICA’S Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) carried out a survey this summer, it found that one in ten of the 5,400 respondents had seriously considered suicide in the previous month—about twice as many who had thought of taking their lives in 2018. For young adults, aged 18 to 24, the proportion was an astonishing one in four.
The survey, published in August, was one of a growing number of warnings about the toll that the pandemic is taking on the mental health of people. For legions, the coronavirus has upended or outright eliminated work, schooling and religious services. On top of that, lockdowns and other types of social distancing have aggravated loneliness and depression for many.
But are people acting on suicidal thoughts? It is too early to be sure. Almost all countries publish suicide statistics with a lag of a year or two; and in recent years, suicide has been declining in most, with America a notable exception. Information from police, hospitals, coroners, courts and others must be collected and carefully studied, in part because some families report events selectively, or untruthfully, in the hope that a loved one’s probable suicide will be ruled a natural or accidental death. A comprehensive picture of suicide in the time of covid-19 has therefore yet to emerge. But experts have reasons to fear the worst.
For one thing, calls to suicide hotlines are up. Some in America have seen volume multiply eight-fold, says Sally Curtin, a suicide expert at CDC. The number of young people seeking help has risen, as has the proportion in extreme distress, notes Brenda Scofield, chairwoman of Samaritans, a hotline charity, in Hong Kong. Talkspace, a New York firm that provides online therapy, says that video sessions have increased by 250% during the pandemic. The number of patients with severe anxiety is up by 40%, a leap unprecedented in Talkspace’s nine years of business. Neil Leibowitz, its chief medical officer, expects this to translate into what he euphemistically calls “a lot of downstream effects”.
A few preliminary estimates of suicides during the pandemic have emerged. Though the figures will be revised, they bode ill. An initial tally of suicides in Japan in August put the number at 1,849, a jump of 15.3% over the same period last year, the health ministry has reported. Nepal’s national police force has said suicides during the pandemic seem to have climbed by a fifth. Thailand’s health ministry fears that nearly nine out of every 100,000 Thais will have killed themselves this year, up from 6.6 in 2019, says Varoth Chotpitayasunondh, a spokesman. The ministry is setting up a new reporting system to obtain official numbers faster. “We definitely cannot wait,” he says.
The long history of links between epidemics and suicides darkens the outlook further. In the first century AD, Ovid, a Roman poet, wrote of a plague in which some hanged themselves to “kill the fear of death by death’s own hand”. The “biblical destruction” wrought by the Spanish flu, which emerged in 1918 and killed perhaps 50m people, coincided with an increase of nearly a third in Europe’s suicides, says Diego De Leo, head of the Slovene Centre for Suicide Research at Primorska University in Koper. The 2003 outbreak of SARS, a respiratory disease caused by a coronavirus, coincided, he says, with a similar increase in suicides among Hong Kong’s elderly.
History cannot, however, provide a precise guide to the present. Shortly after covid-19 emerged late last year, a forecasting team at Thailand’s health ministry began scouring its archives and scientific literature for data on epidemics and suicide. It proved to be of limited use. Numbers correlating epidemics with suicides are fairly sparse, and no recent disease outbreak has wrought havoc comparable to that from covid-19.
Nonetheless, as the ministry’s Dr Chotpitayasunondh notes, correlations between suicides and unemployment—which in many countries has risen sharply during the pandemic—are strong and abundant. Suicide in any case takes the lives of more men than women (in Russia, an extreme case, the ratio is about six to one). Men turned out of work may thus be especially at risk during the pandemic.
In Italy, for example, nearly four times as many men kill themselves as do women. Monica Vichi of the Italian National Institute of Health, a government body in Rome, reckons that the economic crisis that began in 2008 led, over eight years, to an extra 2,000 or so suicides among Italian men of working age. Job losses at the time, she says, led to similar increases in male suicide across Europe. Asia’s financial crisis of 1997 contributed to increases in male suicides the following year of more than a third in Japan and a breathtaking 45% in South Korea. Female suicides rose less sharply.
A study in the Lancet, a medical journal, equates a 1% rise in unemployment with a 0.79% climb in suicide in Europe and a 0.99% increase in America, where jobless benefits have often been less generous—and guns are readily available (sales have boomed during the pandemic). Those estimates roughly align with other teams’ findings. As the pandemic continues to squeeze economies everywhere, this augurs ill. An econometric model designed by Kyoto University’s Resilience Research Unit forecasts for this year at least 3,000 more suicides in Japan than 2019’s toll of about 20,000. And because it often takes time for lives to unravel fully after severe financial misfortune, for 2021 the model predicts a dreadful 34,000 suicides in Japan, says Fujii Satoshi, head of the research centre.
Staring at the black mirror Young people are another potentially vulnerable group. Their outlook may even be worsened by the extra time the pandemic has led many to spend with social media and screens in general. Among young Americans, suicide rates have climbed more than 50% since the iPhone was introduced in 2007. Some of the biggest increases have been among middle-school pupils and girls. The CDC’s Ms Curtin says social media contributes to bullying, unflattering comparisons with peers, and the amplification of mistakes.
Over the past decade or so, social media has progressively but gradually reduced the amount of time young people hang out face-to-face. With the pandemic lockdowns and school closures, many kids have seen their face-to-face time with friends and peers dramatically cut. The effect of this is to render those kids’ reliance on social media far greater. Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University who has co-written studies involving more than half a million adolescents, reckons smartphones and social media are the “primary cause” for America’s rise in youth suicide. Alternate hypotheses for the bulk of the blame (such as exposure to school shootings) fall short, says Dr Twenge, author of a book on the subject.
There are diverse reasons for hope. Many governments are increasingly focusing spending on lessening social and economic disruption. More companies are offering employees crisis counselling, says Nelson Vinod Moses of Suicide Prevention India Foundation, which trains suicide counsellors in Bengaluru. Outfits such as iLife Company, a Spanish firm, are developing “sentiment analysis” software to flag signs of suicidal thoughts in social-media posts. People who search online for suicide methods are now commonly presented with hotline numbers and offers of help from charities. Even urbanisation is reducing easy access to the farm pesticides used in a fifth of all suicides worldwide. Most broadly, prevention begins with an inkling of the risk, and the alarm has sounded.
LIKE MANY children around the age of two, Madison has decided not to do what her mother wants. She will not speak above a whisper. She does not want to read “Big Red Barn”. She will not identify her colours or her shapes, even though she knows them. So, for half an hour, her mother patiently cajoles, persuades, distracts and redirects. “You want me to read to you? What kind of sound does the cow make? Are you going to sing? What’s this?”
It would be a familiar scene in a pushy, upper-middle-class home. But this is a working-class black family in a poor district of Long Island, east of New York City. The careful cultivation of Madison reflects a change in her household. Her mother, Joy, says that she did little to prepare her two older children for school, assuming that they would be taught everything they needed to know. She is determined not to make the same mistake again.
Across the rich world, working-class parents have reached the same conclusion. They expect more of their children than in the past, and treat them differently. Gradually, they have adopted child-raising habits normally associated with middle-class parents. That largely unheralded change has probably mitigated the harm done to poorer children by covid-19 and the school closures it prompted. Unfortunately, some damage has been done anyway.
In 2003 Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, published an astonishing book about child-raising. “Unequal Childhoods” showed that working-class parents—whether they were white or black, poor and welfare-dependent or with steady jobs—thought and behaved differently from middle-class ones. Most assumed that their children would develop naturally, and that their job was to keep them happy and safe. Middle-class parents, by contrast, engaged in what Ms Lareau called “concerted cultivation”, stimulating, stretching and scheduling their progeny to within an inch of their lives.
Middle-class child-raising habits such as endlessly pointing out new things and answering children’s questions with other questions are easily mocked. They are also highly effective. Jill Gilkerson is the chief researcher at LENA, an organisation that measures children’s and adult’s speech using small digital recorders. By controlling for social class, she finds that 14% of the variance in adolescents’ IQ scores can be explained by the frequency of “conversational turns” in their speech at 18-24 months—a measure of their interactions with adults. The effect of toddler talk on adolescents’ verbal comprehension was stronger: it explained 27% of the variance.
Fortunately, the ideal of concerted cultivation seems to have spread. In 2018 Patrick Ishizuka of Cornell University presented American parents with domestic vignettes and asked what they thought of them. In one vignette, a girl who complains about being bored after school is told to go outside and play with her friends; in another, the bored girl is pushed into music lessons and sport. Mr Ishizuka found that highly educated and thinly educated parents differed hardly at all in their responses to these scenarios. Almost all thought the pushy parent was better.
Poorer parents are putting in more time, too. Sociologists Giulia Maria Dotti Sani and Judith Treas have data for 11 Western countries. In all but one (France) mothers without university educations are spending more time caring for their children than in the past. The Centre for Time Use Research has found a concertina pattern in Britain. In the mid-1970s highly educated and thinly educated mothers alike spent little time interacting with their children. Over the following decade the highly educated changed their behaviour, opening a large lead over everyone else. The less-educated then closed the gap (see chart).
Tomás Cano, a sociologist at the University of Frankfurt, suggests that child-raising norms are trickling down the social scale, much as liberal attitudes to divorce did in the second half of the 20th century. He has found that working-class Spanish parents are putting in more time on “developmental” child-care activities (such as reading and playing). Fathers in particular began to do more following the financial crisis, which hit Spain especially hard. They may have had more time for playing because so many had lost their jobs.
All this attention may be helping children at school. Two scholars, Sean Reardon and Ximena Portilla, have shown that in America the gap between the test scores of the most privileged and least privileged children upon entry to nursery closed slightly between 1998 and 2010. In Britain all children in year one of school—aged five or six—are doing better in phonics tests than they were a decade ago. Those who are entitled to free school meals because of their parents’ poverty have advanced more.
All they wanna do is go the distance
Working-class parents might have changed their behaviour in response to market forces. In America the wage premium for completing a college degree has risen from 29% to 45% since 1979. Not surprisingly, poorer parents have become more ambitious for their children. The proportion of parents in the poorest quintile of America’s population who expect their children to get no further than high school fell from 24% in 1998-99 to just 11% in 2010-11.
Another possibility is that training has changed attitudes and behaviour. Joy is being assisted by an organisation called ParentChild+, which has been sending books and toys to poor families, and guiding parents to play in more stimulating ways, since the 1960s. It now caters to 8,500 households in America each year and is expanding elsewhere. Evaluations of ParentChild+ and similar programmes have mostly shown that they work. They are too small to have much of an impact nationally. But they may have helped change norms by spreading the idea that reading and playing with children are important.
Day care, which usually happens outside children’s homes, is common enough to make a difference. It is becoming more so as governments promote it. In the OECD the proportion of three-year-olds enrolled in pre-primary education rose from 62% in 2005 to 70% in 2014. As well as affecting children directly, these programmes could be changing their parents’ behaviour. A large evaluation of Head Start, America’s programme for poor children, found that enrolling three-year-olds raised the proportion who were read to at home.
Another possible explanation for the change is that the working class is different. Sarah Walzer, the chief executive of ParentChild+, says that her outfit encounters many more immigrant families than it used to. Immigrant parents are often ambitious for their offspring, enduring hardship and loneliness to give them better lives. Dina, the mother of a three-year-old boy, moved to America from El Salvador. She does not have a job, and her husband works in a pizza parlour, making the family squarely working class. But Dina, who went to college in El Salvador, has the aspirations of a middle-class parent.
Just as working-class children were catching up, covid-19 hit. School-age children were sent home to households where parents were already juggling pre-school children and their own work. This has been hardest on the poor. Academics at Harvard University discovered that American children did less work on a popular maths website in March and April, with the biggest decline in poor areas. The National Foundation for Educational Research surveyed British teachers in May, two months after the lockdown began. More than half reported that poor children were less engaged with their homework than others.
But if the teachers were right about poorer children doing less work during lockdown (and they might not have been—few kept close tabs on their charges), it was probably not because parents lacked dedication or ambition. A British survey of almost 3,700 people, known as Understanding Society, found that 30% of parents with no more than GCSE qualifications spent at least two hours a day helping with home schooling during the lockdown. That proportion is a little higher than the 28% of parents with degrees who said the same. The parents might be exaggerating. But another survey, of children, found the same pattern. As in Spain after the financial crisis, they may have had more time because so many were furloughed or laid off.
Can you tell me all I need to know?
A likelier explanation for the widening gap is that schools asked less of poorer children. Another study of Britain by two sociologists, Sait Bayrakdar and Ayse Guveli, confirmed that the children of less-educated parents did less work during lockdown. Bangladeshi and Pakistani children (who are mostly working class) did especially little. But the researchers found that the single biggest influence on how much work children did was not how educated their parents were but how much work their schools assigned.
Working-class parents have learned to bring up their children in a more stimulating way. The next thing they need to learn from the middle classes is how to nag their children’s teachers. ■
This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “The rugrat race”